Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Allentown runway incursion: Air traffic controllers cite tower understaffing

NATCAA press statement issued by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) claims that the control tower at Allentown, PA's Lehigh Valley International Airport (ABE) was staffed by unsupervised trainees at the time of a serious runway incursion incident this past Friday, September 19, 2008. The incident resulted in a near collision between a Mesa Airlines regional jet and a Cessna 172. The Cessna had failed to vacate the runway before controllers cleared the Mesa CRJ-700 aircraft for takeoff. When they saw the Cessna still on the runway, the crew of the regional jet rejected takeoff at high speed, and had to swerve to avoid colliding with the smaller aircraft. Fortunately, no one was injured, but it was a very close call: the RJ crew estimated that they cleared the Cessna by about 10 feet.

Whenever there is a runway incursion, we all wonder how it could have happened. In this instance, NATCA assigns at least part of the blame to the control tower staffing policies of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Here is exactly what the NATCA press release about the Allentown runway incursion said:
A Mesa Airlines regional jet was forced to abort its takeoff and swerve on the runway to miss a Cessna on Friday evening at Lehigh Valley International Airport. There were two Federal Aviation Administration employees in the tower, both controller trainees.

The incident comes as the House Aviation Subcommittee prepares to hold a follow-up hearing this Thursday on runway safety. NATCA President Patrick Forrey will be testifying.

At approximately 7:35 p.m. EDT Friday, the Cessna landed on Runway 6. The Mesa Airlines regional jet (RJ), ASH7138 headed to Chicago O’Hare, was instructed to taxi into position and hold its position on the runway. The Cessna was told to exit the runway at Taxiway A4 and taxi to the ramp on the local control radio frequency.

The trainee working local control in the tower thought they saw the Cessna clear the runway and cleared the RJ for takeoff. But the Cessna missed its taxiway and was still on the runway as the RJ was picking up speed. The RJ saw the Cessna and aborted its takeoff but was close enough to the small plane that it had to swerve to the left to avoid a collision. The jet returned to the ramp and the flight to O’Hare was canceled.

Of the 31 on board in the tower and radar control room at this FAA facility, 11 are trainees. That is 35 percent, which NATCA believes is far too many trainees than a facility can safely train.

"This was a very serious incident that points out all of the problems with the ramifications of the FAA's understaffing issues nationwide and our concerns about allowing newly and partially certified controllers to work on their own," Forrey said. "The FAA is so desperate to staff its towers they are forced to work trainees by themselves without adequate numbers of experienced controllers there to work with them. This has exposed the inexperience of our new workforce. These new hires are paying a heavy price for the continued failures of this reckless FAA management team. It’s unfair to these trainees and should be unacceptable to the flying public."
Before you begin your next takeoff roll, perhaps you should ask the ATC giving you clearance if he or she is an unsupervised trainee.